“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?”–Julia Child
We may have a whole lot of Kleenex-tasting bread in the U.S., and I may feel shouty and stabby when well-off white men start making assertions about “legitimate rape,” and I might have to jam my tongue between my front teeth and hold it there when I see adult women wearing Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts non-ironically,
but every now and then I can holler, loudly and proudly and freely, that there are at least a few great things in the United States. Our bread, legislators, and fashion may have never been touched by the shadow of Quality, but damn if we don’t have some fine museums. Equally–more–importantly, our road trip this summer reminded me how heartily I value the value that there is greatness when museums are free to the public.
I refer, specifically, to The Smithsonian. Made up of 19 museums, most of them in Washington D.C., The Smithsonian is open 364 days a year, and admission is free every last one of them. There’s something smart and noble about this. It sends a message to the public at large that they matter; they have a right; they should come; this stuff is important.
My only regret about our time in D.C. is that we only had a week and, therefore, couldn’t see them all. However, we did manage to hit five of the Smithsonians (plus a few for-pay museums, too). We all enjoyed the American History Museum the most, starting with this display of the actual Woolworth’s counter where the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins took place in 1960. Those brave four college students who were refused service and, in response, launched a rule-changing movement of passive resistance (after six months of protest, the counter was de-segregated) actually sat their forceful rear ends right here, in these actual seats. On the day of our visit, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman explaining the counter’s history to her nine-year-old and twelve-year-old children.
How embarrassing for her.
We then headed into the “American Stories” exhibit, which uses more than one hundred items to create a sense of how objects can tell the story of a country’s history. Dorothy’s ruby red slippers are there. So are Anton Apolo Ohno’s speed skates. So is this guy (speaking of things to delight the Wild Paco):
While I love Kermit as much as the next Rabid Muppet Fan, I have to admit that my very favorite item in the “American Stories” exhibit was this:
Before reading this plaque, I’d had no idea that crawling was ever discouraged as a bad habit. Here I’d thought for decades that colonial women had such clean floors thanks to their creeping broods of babies keeping the joint well dusted! How wrong I was.
I also really liked this creeping baby because–obviously–the point of her is not that she’s creeping but that she’s CREEPY AS HELL.
I actually had to deter Paco from coming over to see the creeping creepy baby, lest he never sleep again. Pointing at a random wall, I yelled, “Look, Paco! It’s Fozzy Bear nailing Miss Piggy!”
Once he recovered from that Mama-Manufactured trauma, we headed into the “Within These Walls” exhibit, which the museum describes thusly:
“At the center of this gallery is a partially reconstructed house that stood for 200 years at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts, about 30 miles north of Boston. The house and the exhibition that surrounds it tell the stories of five families who lived there over the years and made history in their kitchens and parlors, through everyday choices and personal acts of courage and sacrifice.”
To be able to walk around the house and stare inside the rooms while reading about the families who had lived there was, well, my idea of Heaven. If only there’d been beer and a huge steak, it would’ve been perfect. I could pretty much stare at a house and read about its previous inhabitants all day long, or at least until Fozzy’s done nailing Miss Piggy. Whichever comes first.
My attention was snagged by the display of lace-making technique; the wife in one of the earliest families in the house supplemented income by making lace.
All those wooden pegs make my head hurt. Kind of makes milking a cow seem like a walk to the barn in comparison, eh?
An absolute highlight of the American History Museum–an exhibit I remember seeing when I was about Allegra’s age–is the display of all the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns and various party dresses. While I recoiled with faintly-remembered horror at the sight of Roslyn Carter’s ’70s Indian/harem/flowy weirdness dress (which, on the model, was one of Byron’s favorites; note to self: when Byron tells you that you look nice, go change clothes), I was enamored of quite a few of the gowns, particularly the bedazzled bit of flapperishness worn by Grace Coolidge. She later gave it to her maid, who gave it to her daughter. I always knew I should’ve been a maid’s daughter.
Here’s a clear photo of it, followed by my blurry attempt; at least with my attempt, though, you can see how the dresses are lined up all next to each other. They don’t actually float around a bare room by themselves, as the museum photo would have you believe…although Paco would have really loved that, if they had.
Every day of our week in D.C., we took the train in from Takoma Park, Maryland, where we were staying (quite cheaply, for the D.C. area; thanks to all who suggested we book using airbnb.com!). We bought a week-long pass for the Metro and rode it in and out of the heart of the city. Resultingly, most of my memories of D.C. are images like these:
One of the days in D.C., our friends Chip and Rob came to Takoma Park to hang out for a few hours on their way from Virginia to Delaware. Chip used to be one of Byron’s roommates when they both worked at the environmental learning center, and Chip is the kids’ godpapa (he and Rob are getting married next summer, so Rob will be grandfathered into godparenting, as well); they both qualify as The Finest Guys Ever:
Because we’d spent the daylight hours with Chip and Rob, we decided to head into the city for the evening and do a dusk-hours walk of the memorials. That evening was the one time it rained during our week there.
But even rainshowers can’t keep a good man–or family–down, and Martin Luther King Jr. still made our hearts beat a little differently:
We also stared at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial
The famous Vietnam Memorial was more of a “touch” experience, as it’s made of black rock, and it was completely dark by the time we got to it. There was minimal lighting, which we used it to help our fingers trace their way across the thousands and thousands of names of men and women killed during that war. Even more moving (and hard to photograph) was the Korean War Memorial, which is designed so that the soldiers appear to be wading through a rice paddy:
Another day, we headed to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and enjoyed not only the presidential portrait gallery (as with the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns, we each had to choose our favorite and least favorite portraits–not presidents, mind you, but the actual paintings. Byron and I both hate Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrait. The kids both chose as a favorite, um, Lyndon B. Johnson’s. Johnson himself called it “the ugliest thing I ever saw”).
Once we’d all agreed we like Bill Clinton’s choice of Chuck Close as his portrait painter
…we moved into other areas of the museum. Below is an installation of Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii.” Basically, the artist has video footage running in every state that reflects what a person could see through the window of a passing car. For Idaho, he has footage of potatoes kind of floating around. Then some more floating potatoes. Plus some potatoes. Just there, floating. Waiting to be seen through a car window.
Listen, Paik. I lived in Idaho for awhile, and not once when I was driving around did I see potatoes floating, untethered, like some sort of First Lady’s inaugural gown.
A special exhibit at the American Art Museum is called “The Art of Video Games.” At the very least, it kept Paco interested and allowed members of the family to become part of the display.
Yet another day in our riches-filled week in Washington D.C., we took a tour of the Capitol building; we’d contacted Minnesota senator Al Franken’s office (yes, the same Al Franken that used to be on Saturday Night Live) and arranged the thing. A perky intern named Hannah Anderson–she couldn’t have had a more Minnesotan name if it’d been written for an SNL sketch, in fact–took us around and showed us all sorts of pretty things.
After our time at the Capitol, we headed towards–brace yourself–another Smithsonian, this one the American Indian Museum. Mostly, we were going there because we’d been given a tip that it’s the best place in D.C. to eat lunch.
On our way to that museum, we walked through the botanical gardens. They grow some crazy-tall glass flowers in D.C.
The facade of the American Indian Museum is awesome. The food is better than awesome. It’s all based on tribal dishes from the various regions of the country, and it uses ingredients that–HAHA!–occur in nature. I could eat there every day for weeks and not get enough.
It’s good that we were well fueled by good food, as the week just kept rolling on. Another day we went to the Newseum, which is not part of the Smithsonian, but it’s worth the entrance fee. For example, visiting this museum gave us a chance to talk explicitly about the Berlin Wall with our children and communicate to them how devastating that divide was on a human level…and how many people risked and gave up their lives to escape from an existence without choices…and how exhilarated the entire world was when that wall came down. On the day of our visit, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman explaining the wall’s history to her nine-year-old and twelve-year-old children.
The entire Newseum is devoted to the force that is freedom of the press and to exploring the way journalism plays a role in our perceptions of history. Plus, the place has a great view of the Capitol from the top floor. We went out and hollered, “HELLOOOOOO, Hannah Anderson” a few times for good measure.
Back inside the Newseum, we were able to make a video of ourselves doing a news story. Rather than subject you to that, I offer up this photo as evidence that we are a microphone-wielding family who can tell you a few things about cherry blossoms:
Even after all these pictures and details about what we did and saw in D.C., I haven’t covered the half of it. Hence, you can understand why the kids looked like this every night:
On the day this picture was taken, a few bystanders later reported to their spouses that they had witnessed a teary Midwestern woman tucking away her camera while muttering, “I just love their softy little selves so much.”
On our last afternoon, we went back to whence we started and did a quick revisit to the Museum of American History. An exhibit had opened just that day, an exhibit celebrating Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Her entire kitchen, the place where several of her famous tv programs were filmed, is now part of The Smithsonian. We looked at the exhibit and watched some footage of her old shows. Two weeks later, Paco mentioned casually, “You remember that Julia Child show we watched in the museum? The one where they were cooking and then taking apart a lobster? That was seriously interesting.”
Finally, after seven days and nights of toodling and touring, we packed up the car and sat down inside it for the first time since we’d arrived. We bid adieu to the house where we’d been staying…
…and we filed away our museum-fueled memories, ready to pull them out weeks, months, years later and think, “That was seriously interesting.”
Then we caught our collective breath and turned the car northwards: to Connecticut and New York City.